Yes, it’s a federal holiday, but our legislature doesn’t abide by those quaint notions, not when there’s work to do.
There was work to do today, though to many of us with regular 9-to-5 jobs, it wouldn’t appear as such.
No, mostly our legislators put on their fancy suits, don their shiny shoes, tie up those ties, and apply the cologne and/or perfume.
After that they go to certain rooms for their committee meetings.
This is where the real distinctions begin.
- Some legislators sit back, listening patiently.
- Others fiddle about on their computers or their phones.
- Many utilize their No. 2 pencils for taking notes on yellow legal pads.
- Lots flip through papers, perhaps the bill under consideration, perhaps something else.
- All sit down, though sometimes one or two will get up, head to the water cooler, the coffee table, or even step out of the room for a moment.
Typically that’s the morning’s ‘work,’ and then in the afternoon the legislators will be rounded up for voting in the appropriate chambers.
More talking happens, then the voting takes place.
There might be a few meetings in the afternoon, but for the most part, that’s it.
Legislators are paid $82.64 a day for that plus another $109.78 a day in per diem.
So for a 5-day week they’ll make $962.10.
For a standard 2-week paycheck that comes out to $1,924.20.
And let’s not forget the free health insurance that they all get.
Altogether their pay comes to $3,848 a month, and that’s more than enough to cover the apartment rental that many have to take out.
Even if you figure $800 a month for rent in their hometown, plus $800 a month for a place in Helena, our legislators would still have $2,248 left over each month.
Not too shabby at all.
So I thought I’d go up and see these folks in action today, at least for a little bit.
Here’s what I saw.
Members of the committee included Mike Hopkins of Missoula, Jim Keane of Butte, Mike Cuffe of Eureka and Janet Ellis of Helena.
The topic of discussion was mussels.
Besides the legislators there were about 35 people in attendance.
This has been a big story in Montana.
Currently the state might have to pay $167 million to clean up this problem.
That’s a lot of money, so it was good to hear what people had to say.
I arrived at 10:07 and someone in a suit was talking. I suppose he was talking for a good 7 minutes, as the chair of the committee – Rep. Carl Glimm of Kila – said the pace was too slow and things would have to pick up.
After that another man in a suit got up to talk, one with the DNRC.
He mentioned that lots of agencies are out looking for these invasive species.
A huge component to this problem is education and outreach. This needs to be increased if we want to deal with this issue properly.
A rapid response plan is called for, one that coordinates all the existing response plans.
One man mentioned that there’s a huge question mark surrounding the economics of this issue.
There has not been an invasive species budget approved by Congress, and no money is forthcoming from the Bureau of Reclamation.
Representative Cuffe mentioned that he’s reached out to Ryan Zinke about this issue.
Around 10:15 the committee called for the members of the incident command team to stand up and be noted. There were about 10 of them present.
There is an incident command post in the basement of the DNRC Building, for those wanting more information.
At that point those folks all left. A bunch of other people took the opportunity to leave as well.
When it was all said and done there were about 10 to 15 people still there.
The next person discussed economic impacts for the State of Washington when it comes to invasive species.
It comes to $1.3 billion a year.
The Cost of Invasive Weeds
Jane Mangold, an associate professor from UM, got up next and spoke about invasive terrestrial plants.
She mentioned that there are 8.2 million Montana acres that have noxious weeds.
We have 33 species on our noxious weeds list, with 2 more about to join the list.
Invasive plants are associated with:
- Decreased native plants
- Decreased amounts of wildlife habitat
- Increased erosion
- Increased risk of wildfires
- Decreased recreational values
- Decreased aesthetic value
Invasive plants cost the US economy $27 million annually.
No reports have been done for Montana since the 1990s but those reports found that knapweed alone costs us $14 million a year.
When you factor in all the species it comes to about $129 million a year.
Grazing units are losing $1.29 an acre on average, or what amounts to $65,000 a year for landowners.
Next up was Chip Webber, the Forest Supervisor for the Flathead National Forest.
He’s represented Region 1 for many years and worries about our risk of exposure to invasive species because of how many unattended bodies of water we have.
Most costs go to mitigation efforts. Just in the Flathead they provide $70,000 annually to the inspection stations.
After that I left this meeting to see what else was going on.
The House Business and Labor Committee
There were 18 people on this House Committee, including such legislators as Amanda Curtis of Butte, Willis Curdy of Missoula, Casey Schreiner of Great Falls, and Moffie Funk of Helena.
There were about 12 people in this meeting, not counting the legislators.
Lots of legislators were out in the hallway ‘shooting the shit.’ I suppose many had been in the previous committee meeting.
Representative Gordon Pierson was one of those legislators, and he came into the committee meeting about 4 minutes late.
Up for discussion was HB 223 to revise laws relating to title insurance.
It would eliminate errors and the bill would not cost the state a thing, the bill’s sponsor – Republican Representative Geraldine Custer of Forsyth – mentioned.
First we had Custer get up to introduce the bill, then we had a young woman get up to speak in favor of the bill.
I got the impression that this was a rather boring piece of legislation before the committee today.
I found it boring, and that’s what most of the legislature’s work is – boring.
It’s mundane work of government, changing some rules, tweaking others, and adding a few more.
Most of these changes cost money, though occasionally we get rarities like HB 223 that do not.
After that we had the President of the Montana Land Title Association get up to speak in favor of this bill.
He started off by mentioning how boring the title insurance industry can be, but he mentioned it’s important for our ability to buy and sell land.
He talked about going back into the public record to build a “title plant” to determine a piece of land’s history.
Another person got up to speak for this bill. His talk focused on ways to eliminate risk when it comes to drawing up and transferring titles.
So we had about 3 proponents for the bill and after that a woman named Sara Rehm got up. She’s affiliated with an eastern Montana title company.
She was going to oppose this bill, but because of some kind of discussion that had taken place in the hallway, she decided to withdraw her opposition to this bill.
That brings up some interesting aspects of the legislature – what happens in hallways, cloakrooms, and other places such as that?
Who knows? It’s not a matter of public record. Something happened out there today, however, and perhaps that’s what was keeping Representative Pierson from getting to the meeting on time.
Representative Willis Curdy was curious about why she changed her opposition to the bill and called her up to ask her that.
The issue got back to those title plants, or privately maintained title records.
Record keeping is spotty, with no consistency between counties.
That’s the gist of what her opposition was about. This had the potential to limit a consumer’s choices in what title companies they could use.
Amanda Curtis then asked about fees for accessing title plants, and since they’re privately maintained, there is a fee.
We couldn’t determine what the average fee was, mainly because it was not given nor asked for.
It was determined that there is no fee for accessing county records.
After that the bill’s sponsor got up and gave a long spiel in favor.
It was 11:10 AM by that point and the committee decided to take a 5-minute break before doing anything else.
I decided to get up and leave.
It’s like going to boring university lectures all day, for the most part.
If you’re not paid to be there or paid to follow it, it’d be a real chore to do so.
Still, by going to the legislature and poking around a bit you get a better feel for things than you would if you’re just watching the committee or floor videos.
You get to see more of the audience, more of the people walking around in the hallways, and more of the various legislators sitting around looking bored.
Nearly everyone is wearing a suit or some other nice attire. Most people are old.
Most of the issues under discussion won’t affect you.
Today I heard about invasive mussels and weeds, as well as private title records.
- Sure, you might use a boat a lot and mussels might cut off your access to some waterways.
- Maybe you have cattle and noxious weeds are ruining your grazing land.
- Perhaps you have some land to swap and you want a better process when it comes to your title.
But for most Montanans, these will never be issues.
Lots of people in this state are poor, barely getting by. They’re not buying boats and hitting up the lake. They sure aren’t swapping land.
The minimum wage bill that was before the Business and Labor Committee would have had a much bigger impact on a lot more people than the bills I heard today.
That one will likely be tabled, however, meaning it’ll be dead.
Happens a lot in the legislature.
With the GOP in control it means rich property owners take precedence over poor working stiffs.
Voting could change that, but Dems don’t have a message that appeals to people in Kila, Eureka, Colstrip, and other such places.
Perhaps they will in the future. We’ll see.
Until then, enjoy reading about the legislature in the newspapers, on the TV websites, and on a few blogs.
The coverage is spotty, but better than nothing.
The more reporting on the legislature's deeds and shenanigans, the better.
I hope you enjoyed this report. Thanks!